“Write in all five senses,” they say. “Incorporate at least three sensual cues in every scene,” they say. “Don’t forget your sense of smell!” they say. “Scent and psyche are deeply connected,” they say.
Anyone who’s ever taken a writing workshop has heard the advice to weave scent details into writing in order to make it a living, breathing thing, but no one ever says how. So when I set out to write a memoir about being a super sniffer—someone inordinately connected to her sense of smell—I knew I was going to have to draw far and wide to really learn how to make great smelly writing.
The stakes are especially high in scent writing. Do it well, and it’s as if James Joyce and Marcel Proust are patting you fondly from tiny perches on both shoulders. Fail, and you’re suddenly the guy doused in Axe body spray who just stepped into the elevator.
There’s your first lesson about scent and writing. If you’re any good at all, readers might not even know that it’s there. They will absorb it from the page the same way the mind might take in a scent without really being conscious of it.
After I decided to start reading for scent in literature, I focused almost exclusively on books about scent: Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume, Mandy Aftel’s Fragrant, Chandler Burr’s The Perfect Scent. But while I read every book published in the scent-writing genre, I began to discover a much broader appeal for smelly writing in memoir and fiction—both categories that rely on detail to imply a character’s psychological state.
Take this masterly passage from Nina McLaughlin’s Hammerhead: The Making of a Carpenter, which shows how effectively scent cues speak to the narrator’s transformation from office worker to woodworker: “Sawdust spewed and dusted down onto the pavement, resting in craters in the cement, and the smell of pine moved with it, bright and clean, the smell of Christmas, renewal.”
Some of my favorite recent scent writing comes from Isaac Marion’s YA novel Warm Bodies, quite possibly the smelliest book I’ve ever read. In Warm Bodies (spoiler alert!), the main zombie character, R, is able to discern more scents as he falls in love with a human. The more he can smell, the more R knows that he is changing: “As this happens, my sinuses ignite with a new smell, something similar to the life energy of the Living but also vastly different. It’s coming from Julie, it’s her scent, but it’s also mine. It rushes out from us like an explosion of pheromones, so potent I can almost see it.”
Scent works subtly in Paula Hawkins’s megabestseller The Girl on the Train. You probably remember what Rachel saw from the train, but do you remember what she smelled? The main character often focuses on the scent details, which feels more real to her than her visual memory. “So when I closed my eyes, when I drifted into a half dream and found myself in that underpass, I may have been able to feel the cold and smell the rank, stale air, I may have been able to see a figure walking towards me, spitting rage, fist raised, but it wasn’t true.”
There’s your second lesson about scent writing. Like a memory from childhood, good scent writing sneaks up on you out of nowhere, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, surprising you and providing clues to a character’s psychological state.
Occasionally I’ll even find great nonfiction scent writing in which scent’s purpose is to insert us into a scene, as in Bruce Barcott’s cannabis compendium Weed the People: “The smell of a grow room is the scent of transpiration, of fecund exertion. It’s the trapped sweat of a high school locker room, the funk of a hockey jersey steaming on a radiator.”
The longer I read for scent, the more convinced I become that scent is one of the least used in the dusty grab bag of writers’ tools, and the more committed I become to creating writing that truly stinks. After all, smelly writing is the way we can all rail against the tyranny of the visual in our culture and remember the things books provide us: a world unseen (as well as unsmelled).
Emily Grosvenor is a magazine writer in Oregon and the creator of the Scent in Literature Project. She is writing a memoir of a super sniffer.